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In Praise of “Comfort TV”

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you get home from work, have dinner, and settle in for the evening. You think about picking up that book (you know, the one on your bedside table that’s been serving as a coaster for your phone since just after Christmas), but you decide against it, even though reading more was one of your New Year’s resolutions. You scroll through a couple of your preferred social media apps before setting your phone aside, picking up the remote and wading into the nearly endless sea of content provided by your streaming platforms of choice.
Here it is, the last chance you’ll have to rescue your day, to jump start your brain by watching one of those award-winning prestige dramas that everyone’s always going on about. Or maybe you can finally see why everybody lavishes praise on one of the many smartly-written, genre-bending comedies populating Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and Hulu. Sure, it’s not War and Peace, but aren’t today’s best serialized TV programs equal to a work of literature in their scope and complexity?
You click, click, click, and the titles roll by in a blur. It’s a little overwhelming, actually. You see so many things that look interesting that you’re frozen by the sheer volume of possibility. Or maybe it’s just that the investment of all that time and mental energy daunts you. Starting a new series means writing a check for however many seasons worth of time it’ll take you to get through. And after all, it’s been a long day. Better, just for tonight, to throw on something you’ve seen, something you don’t have to pay all that much attention to, something where the characters feel like old friends and the plot lines like warm memories.
The Office, Parks and Recreation, Friends, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, 30 Rock. Comfort viewing, in the same way that fried chicken and mashed potatoes are comfort food. Mine tend to be comedies, see. Those first three are more or less ever-present in my life. I could mark the passing of the seasons by which season of which show I’m currently watching (again). Right now, my wife and I are coasting into the final season of The Office (they get so much wrong in those last couple of seasons, but that finale is perfection). Parks and Recreation will follow immediately thereafter. This probably marks a dozen times through the pair of series. Perhaps that seems ridiculous, or, perhaps you’re like one of the many people I’ve encountered who confess that, despite seemingly infinite choice, you more or less just return to old favorites when it comes time to pick something to watch.
It’s a common occurrence. That much is clear. But why?
Is it Barry Schwartz’s “paradox of choice?” Given limitless options, we should in theory be happier with our entertainment selections, but all that choice actually ends up paralyzing us. And if we do make a choice, we’re often convinced we made the wrong one, that there’s something better out there waiting for us.
Is it our busy schedules and the reluctance to commit the time it takes to watch six or eight or ten seasons’ worth of a TV show? Or the mental energy it requires to pay strict attention to every knowing glance and every sly visual cue in shows like Game of Thrones or The Handmaid’s Tale?
As with almost everything, it’s probably a bit of this and a bit of that, but I can’t muster the energy to cast aspersions on those (me included, obviously) who put off watching that deep, nuanced critical darling (or, you know, reading a damn book) in favor of something fun and familiar. It’s a tough world out there, you guys, and by the time I’m easing myself into the last part of my day, sometimes the last thing I want is to contend with the weightiness of a great drama. Will I get to the end of my days and wish I hadn’t spent so much time with Michael Scott, Leslie Knope, and all those other TV equivalents of my favorite worn out sweaters? It’s possible that I’ll be haunted by all the great stuff I never got around to.
But if comfort TV is like comfort food, then there’s really no reason for any of us to feel bad about the countless hours we spend devouring it. Sure, The Americans and Sons of Anarchy and Rectify are dishes at Michelin-starred, award-winning restaurants, and everyone should take the opportunity to sample them occasionally. But at the end of a long day, sometimes you just want homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I mean, have you ever had homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes? They’re amazing. And so are all the shows I turn to when I want the comfort and familiarity of a favorite meal.
All right. Now I’m hungry. Time for a little snack. And a healthy helping of Dunder-Mifflin.

Article written by Josh Corman

Josh Corman is a marketing writer and Contributing Editor at bookriot.com. He lives in Central Kentucky.